By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Manager of Science and Communications
While I am a full-time staff member of FracTracker Alliance, like many other people I wear several hats. One of these is as an academic researcher and doctorate student in environmental health at Pitt. My academic research focuses on unconventional natural gas extraction and its potential impacts on health. However, trying to conduct research in such a controversial arena can be frustrating – at best. Access to well pads, pipelines, or other industrial areas is limited for a variety of reasons in Pennsylvania. The opportunity to discuss concerns with workers and residents is stifled by fear, red tape, and/or the desire to protect precious assets. I don’t blame people for being cautious about with whom they speak, but I truly wish it were easier to get close to drilling activity in person, without putting anyone’s lives or jobs in danger. My lamenting on that very subject one day resulted in a colleague telling me about The West Virginia Host Farms Program, a grassroots project launched by volunteer home owners residing near drilling activity.
The purpose of the program is to provide environmental researchers and the media with the chance to conduct research or simply to photograph a well pad in person from the safety of an adjacent host farm. In short, the network of volunteers help to develop research partnerships to better understand the impacts of drilling. Diane Pitcock, the program’s administrator, recognized the need for this initiative a few years ago as a surface rights owner. In WV many people are in “split-estate” situations, meaning that most surface owners do not own the mineral rights beneath their land. This issue is compounded by the fact that most of the minerals in WV are owned by people that do not even live in state. As such, the people who own the surface rights feel that their homes and livelihoods in some cases are at risk – without the potential for financial reimbursement from the sale of the mineral rights below their land. The program aims to show people that unconventional drilling using hydraulic fracturing is not our grandfather’s gas extraction process, and it can’t be treated as such.
The project operates out of 14 West Virginia counties where drilling is most active. The network of volunteers has aided in academic research based out of several universities including Yale and Duke. The project has also hosted out of state reporters and even international photojournalists, people who possess platforms to advance the outreach and public education effort surrounding unconventional drilling. For example, Jolynn Minaar, who produced the documentary, Un*earthed, visited from South Africa in 2012 as part of her field work. Journalists from alternet.org and polidoc.com have been among the area’s many inquirers, as well. Even if you don’t plan on taking a tour of WV drilling sites, you can still benefit from the project’s extensive, online photo gallery (see image above).
Despite the controversial nature of shale gas drilling, the growing utilization of the program is surely a success story. Based on the WV Host Farms model, additional host farm networks are being coordinated in PA and OH as we speak. Engaging people who can volunteer 30-40 hours per week is no easy task, however. As more federal research like the US EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study begins to get off of the ground and into the well, perhaps even more people will support and recognize the value of such an integral, on-the-ground resource in the WV Host Farms Program. I know this researcher does!
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